This is a fairly lengthy article, so please take some time to join the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) journey to Okinawa and Tokyo and learn that it is the people who are making peace!
On October 18, 2019, APALA sent its first ever international delegation to Okinawa and Tokyo on a ten-day visit to “Develop ties with International Labor Organizations, especially with Labor Unions in Asia and the Pacific, and seek steps to promote world peace”, as stated in the APALA Constitution’s Statement of Purpose. The Delegation consisted of seven members led by Kent Wong, APALA’s Founding President from the UCLA Labor Center and Monica Thammarath, APALA’s National President from the National Education Association and Washington, DC’s Chapter Secretary. The Delegation also included Kim Geron, APALA’s National 1st Vice President and Alameda Chapter President from the California Faculty Association, SEIU Local 1983; Tracy Lai, APALA’ s National Secretary and Seattle Chapter Vice President, also the AFT Washington’s Vice President for Human Rights; Stan Shikuma of the Seattle Chapter from the Washington State Nurses Association, AFT Local 6486; Susan Minato, from the Los Angeles Chapter and UNITE HERE Local 11 Co-President; and myself, Alex Hing, a sous chef from UNITE HERE, Local 6 of the New York Hotel Trades Council.
Welcome reception in Okinawa. APALA photo.
The trip was 15 years in the making when Kent and Hirohiko Takasu first met in Japan. Takasu was a labor activist and educator who was intent on setting up labor centers in Japan similar to the one Kent administers at UCLA. As their friendship grew, delegations from Tokyo and Okinawa visited the UCLA Labor Center as well as two APALA National Conventions, including the 25th Anniversary Convention where 24 members of the Okinawa/Tokyo delegation invited APALA to visit Japan. It was following this Convention that the APALA National Executive Board passed a resolution to support the struggle of the Okinawan people to halt the construction of a US military airbase in Henoko. Kent and Takasu worked very closely to set up our visit which almost did not happen. A few months before the trip Kent was rushed into open heart surgery. He recovered but then Takasu suddenly fell ill and passed away. Our trip was dedicated to his memory.
OKINAWA: THE KEYSTONE OF THE PACIFIC
As a longtime peace activist, I was aware of the struggle of the Okinawan people against both Japanese militarism and US imperialism. However, it wasn’t until our visit that I gained an understanding of the deep love of peace that is engrained in the Okinawan national character. People-to-people diplomacy is necessary to uplift their fight for peace and environmental justice. Most people in the US are unaware of this heroic fight or even know what Okinawa is.
In the 15th century, Okinawa was the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom which had a key role in peacefully promoting trade with China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia due to its location directly to the east of Fujian, to the south of the Japanese mainland and within the north-south trade winds covering Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Java. In 1609 Satsuma, on the Japanese mainland invaded Ryukyu but allowed it to maintain its independence due to its trade relations with China. For a period of time Ryukyu was a tributary of both China and Japan. However, during the Meiji Restoration Japan began to tighten its control over Ryukyu and finally annexed it in 1896 following China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. Ryukyu prefecture then, is similar to Hawaii, both were independent, sovereign Pacific island kingdoms that became annexed by force into the larger country.
Shuri Castle was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429 to 1879). It was destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa and rebuilt in 1992. In 2000, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. APALA photo.
In the early twentieth century, Japanese militarism expanded onto the Asian mainland and Pacific Islands through brutal colonial warfare. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the US entered what the Okinawans call the Pacific War.
THE BATTLE OF OKINAWA
After its defeat in the Battle of Midway, and especially after the loss of Saipan, Japan had to consolidate its defense forces and began to rapidly build military bases in Okinawa with Shuri Castle, the historic center of the Ryukyu Kingdom, as its headquarters. At the southern tip of Japan, Okinawa was the only place during the war where ground warfare took place on Japanese soil.
“Battle of Okinawa” painting by Iri & Toshi Maruki at the Sakima Art Museum. APALA photo.
The US invasion began on April 1, 1945 and lasted for 90 days. However, for the preceding 3 months, US artillery and bombings created what the Okinawans call a “typhoon of steel” flattening buildings and the landscape. While many Okinawan civilians evacuated north, this became increasingly impossible so people sought refuge in the limestone caves in the south, many to die of starvation or malaria. As the battle dragged on civilians, including children, were drafted into the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Japan was fighting a war of attrition with every soldier dedicated to fight to the death in order to prevent the Allies from reaching Tokyo, if even for a day. With that brutal mindset, Japanese soldiers began attacking civilians. They forced civilians out of the caves or put them near the entrances to be killed in the crossfire. Babies were killed so that their crying would not alert the Allies to their whereabouts. Civilians committed mass suicide or were forced to kill one another. People who spoke Okinawan were considered spies and executed. The Allies blew up caves or used flame throwers burning people to death. In the end, the Battle of Okinawa killed more people than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, including 150,000 civilians.
Names of the people who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa. Okinawa Prefecture Peace Memorial Museum. APALA photo.
Our Delegation visited the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum where the Cornerstone of Peace, an undulating series of stone blocks with the names of the 250,000 who died in the Battle of Okinawa from both sides are engraved. In the center of the memorial is the Flame of Peace which was lit by the Eternal Flames from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
APALA delegation at the Peace Memorial. APALA photo.
POST WAR OCCUPATION
When the war ended, Okinawans were first put into refugee camps but were later allowed to return to their homes. However, many people found that the US military had seized their land to build new bases. In 1951 the occupation of Japan ended and its sovereignty was restored the following year. However, the US maintained the occupation of the Ryukyus and proceeded to build military bases on Okinawa and suppressing human rights. Travel to and from Japan was severely restricted as was freedom of speech. The main issue for Okinawans was the forcible acquisition of private land for US bases which was done by “bayonets and bulldozers”. Crimes against Okinawans by base personnel went unpunished. The Okinawans began to organize for reversion to Japan which grew into an island wide movement with mass protests involving hundreds of thousands of people. Reversion finally became a reality in 1972.
US MILITARY BASES ON OKINAWA
With the Cold War, the US needed to use Japan as a staging area against China and the USSR including in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. While some of the war bases on the Japanese mainland were actually removed, more and more bases were built on Okinawa to the extent that Okinawa now has 70.4% of the US area in the country being used exclusively by US forces (about 20% of Okinawa) yet it comprises only 0.6% of Japan’s total land area. This has caused severe hardship for the Okinawan people. In 1995, three US soldiers kidnapped and gang raped a 12-year-old Okinawan school girl which led to an island wide demand for the removal of all US military bases. The US and Japan agreed to remove the base at Futenma where the attackers were stationed. However, this was a lying, cynical ploy on the part of both Japan and the US because a new base further north in Henoko is now being built to supposedly relocate the Futenma base. In the meantime, Futenma is still in full use. Since 2004, a daily non-violent sit-in at the entrance gate to the Henoko construction site at Camp Schwab aimed at halting construction vehicles is being held. When survey ships conducted tests of the sea floor at Henoko’s Oura Bay, they were met by a fleet of Okinawan fishermen and kyactivists. The will of the Okinawan people to close Futenma and end the Henoko construction was also shown in the elections of the governor and legislators who ran on an anti-base platform as well as in a February 2019 referendum where 71.7% voted to oppose the base construction.
“Daybreak” section of the “Battle of Okinawa” painting. APALA photo.
Our Delegation visited several sites adjacent to US military bases. What became clear to us is the bases are located cheek-to-jowl with civilian areas including schools. Aircraft take off and land within a few feet of Okinawan residences and other civilian facilities in violation of US military regulations and Japanese law. We visited schools where objects fell off helicopters, a university where a helicopter crashed onto the campus and an elementary school where a jet fighter crashed killing 11 people. Futenma is located in the heart of Ginowan City and after a tour of the site former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called it “the most dangerous military airbase in the world”. We visited an elementary school where the constant air traffic generates noise pollution well above safe levels. The greater the noise, the closer the aircraft and the school used to have safety drills whenever the noise level indicated a plane was dangerously close and evacuated into shelters. What is disturbing is these incidents were so frequent, the drills were suspended as students and teachers became conditioned to the noise including classrooms being shaken by the vibrations. In violation of an agreement with Japan, the planes also fly at night.
Our delegation joined the demonstrators in Henoko. It was raining due to a nearby typhoon so construction was called off and there was no sit-in or arrests that day. Demonstrators did come out to greet us though and we heard their stories and songs. Groups and individuals from all over Okinawa and Japan have maintained the picket line every day since September 2004 to block construction. They rest on benches under a canopied structure they built and I was reminded of Resurrection City, 1968 and Occupy Wall Street, 2011. The leaders of the demonstrators change about three times a week and the “Heart of Okinawa” was on full display.
Pictures of the Haneko demonstration. APALA photo.
This spirit is exemplified by the Okinawans’ dignified determination to create a just world by peaceful means and it is unshakeable. When Satsuma invaded Ryukyu, it was easily captured because their kingdom was based on friendly trade instead of war, yet for 270 years after, Ryukyu was able to maintain its independence. Karate, their famous national martial art means “empty hand” (prior to that it was written as “Chinese hand”). During the Ryukyu Kingdom, the populace was not allowed to possess arms so they developed a self-defense system on the concept of the weaponless warrior. In 1970 in Koza, a traffic accident touched off an anti-US demonstration involving 5,000 people when an MP fired a shot resulting in over seventy cars being set on fire along the main street. No soldier was injured. There is no Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach the gospel of non-violence. It seems that this is taken for granted in spite of the violence that was visited upon them during the Battle of Okinawa and after. Even though they are clearly a nation, in the main, they are not calling for national liberation but rely on education, mass mobilization, non-violent direct action and legal and political struggle. This is why our delegation was so important, we represented people-to-people diplomacy without the protocols that prevent real progress. This may seem like an impossible dream, but then the Okinawans have the longest lifespans of any people on earth.
The Okinawans have a deep love of nature and of their land and sea. The islands are in a subtropical zone and has so many unusual flora and fauna that it is sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of the East”. It has the whitest sand beaches in Asia and pristine bays that contain some of the rarest coral on earth. The islands are composed of limestone which is fossilized coral. Formed by coral and not volcanoes, the Ryukyu atoll is actually a living thing. Coral filters the water storing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen to create nutrients at the base of the life chain. This is a paradise similar to Hawaii and Okinawa currently has more tourists annually than Hawaii. The proliferation of US military bases is putting a brake on Okinawa’s economy rather than contributing to it. And, oil spills and other pollution from the military bases is destroying their environment.
Part of the plan for Henoko is to build landing strips into Oura Bay, which contain one of the largest colonies of blue coral in the world as well as a rich biodiversity of other sea life including the endangered sea mammal the dugong, an endearing Okinawan icon. Upon surveying the site, it was discovered that the seabed has an N value of 0, similar in density to mayonnaise which cannot support a large air and sea base. The Abe government has diverted funds from the Japanese budget to fortify the sea bottom by driving into the seabed over 60, 000 pillars 60 meters (196 ft.) deep and filling them sand from other locations and compacting it. This will cause irreparable damage by introducing alien species into the bay as well as damaging the coral and polluting the bay. It was also discovered that the airstrips will be located atop 2 active earthquake faults. In spite of the science, the Abe government is determined to finish this project without regard to the wishes of the people of Okinawa who are an indigenous people and recognized as such by the UN.
Exploring Oura Bay. APALA photo.
Our delegation was taken on a tour of Oura Bay in a glass bottom boat and, although the recent rain had stirred up the water, we could see how pristine the Bay is and saw many different kinds of coral, fish, turtles and other marine life. When we approached the construction site, an alarm went off and a ship warned us away with loudspeakers. Okinawan fisherman and kyactivists are also waging a sea battle. Our guide pointed out an area where land had eroded into the bay during a recent rain storm where military ammunition is to be stored. In the past, such storage facilities had been discovered to hold poison gas and nuclear weapons.
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE DIPLOMACY
The governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki, who had just returned from a lobbying mission to Washington, DC was anxious to meet with us before we ended our visit. The Okinawans have two adversaries, Trump and Abe. If we could assist them in lobbying the US Congress to reconsider approval of Henoko as the replacement for Futenma it would be of great help to them. Six Okinawan legislators will be in the US in November to try and raise their concerns to people in Congress and they wanted to coordinate with APALA to help connect them with any sympathizers that we have on the Hill. We made the best plans we could, but informed them that the impeachment proceedings will be taking up most of Congress’ time. However, people-to-people diplomacy means connecting with our members and allies. By raising the situation of Okinawa to them, many possibilities can happen. And, of course, the elections next year will also provide opportunities.
On our last evening in Okinawa, we held a symposium at Okinawa University on the role of labor centers. As part of our trip preparation, we looked at a survey showing that the opposition to US military bases is lower among Okinawan millennials than older folks due to being raised knowing nothing else. Some have jobs on the bases and have been acclimated to their presence. But, most of the students also have part time jobs and are aware of the uncertainties that most workers face. Many of them understand the necessity of organizing for unions. Through small group discussion, it was easy to see that these students have dreams for a better world.
Kent Wong with APALA panelists at Okinawa University Labor Symposium. APALA photo.
We were in Tokyo for a little over 2 days for an exchange with unions and immigrant rights activists and to lead a 2-part symposium at Hosei University on the US labor movement. We hit the ground running. Before checking into our hotel, we attended a meeting of the Solidarity Network with Migrants in Japan. Held in an office that reminded me of CPA in San Francisco, or CAAAV in New York, we met migrant workers from many countries such as Ghana, Brazil, Peru, Myanmar and India. Their stories are similar to those we hear in the US. Workers were lured to Japan on the promise of good paying jobs and permanent status and paid agents a high fee. Upon arrival, they were given temporary visas and worked in grueling, dangerous jobs for long hours and burdened with a high debt. Women workers were subject to sexual harassment. In this system of exploitation, the Japanese government is complicit. Because of nationalism and an aging population Japan has a severe labor shortage but it refuses to accept that is becoming an immigrant nation so instead of creating a comprehensive immigration policy, the Abe government devised Technical Intern Trainee visas in which foreign workers are supposed to be trained in professional skills but are instead abused by unscrupulous labor brokers and their employers in menial jobs. They often work long hours with unpaid overtime for below minimum wage and have no health coverage. When their visas expire, employers threaten to deport the migrants in order to continue their exploitation. In Japan, you cannot be a citizen unless at least one parent is a Japanese national. We met a woman from Ghana whose teenage daughter was threatened with deportation even though she was born in Japan. The Solidarity Network has attorneys and unionists who advocate for migrant workers as well as agitate for comprehensive immigration reform.
After our meeting, we were all taken out to dinner which meant we basically took over a neighborhood restaurant. The Solidarity Network’s office is in a part of the Ueno District where many migrants live. A lively group of women workers from Peru burst out singing worker songs in Spanish and some of us joined in when they sang The Internationale. People-to-people contact strengthened solidarity as we all shared similar stories and a shared vision of a just society.
Migrant women workers sing a song of solidarity in Tokyo at the Solidarity Network office. APALA photo.
Our delegation met with two labor unions in Tokyo, the Japanese Association of Metal, Machinery and Manufacturing (JAM) and the Japan Teacher’s Union (JTU) to share perspectives on public and private sector union organizing. Like the US, labor in both sectors is in decline. For the private sector the biggest problem is that in Japan, unions are organized based on companies and not industry-wide trades. So, a small auto parts factory will have its own union with 30 people. Even though JAM represents some large factories with hundreds of workers, its main organizing is among mid-sized and small companies with fewer than 100 workers and often with 30 or less. There are many problems with company based unions, the first is identification with the company among workers is high and that makes it difficult to formulate broader policy. JAM organizes technical interns including Burmese and Bhutanese workers.
At JTU, government attacks on the union which has opposed the governing Liberal Democrats, that has ruled Japan since 1945, has been a constant struggle. For instance, JTU opposes the Abe government’s rewriting of history textbooks that give a rightwing narrative to school children. While lack of education funding is not an issue, overwork is. Japan has the highest education standards in the world and the pressure on teachers to keep up to those standards is very high. We were shown graphics where the average day of an elementary school teacher begins at 5:30 am and ends at 10:00 pm. In between, there is little time to rest: preparing lessons, leading morning exercises, classroom teaching, individual counseling, serving and lunch and cleaning up afterwards, correcting papers and grading tests, supervising afterschool activities, going to meetings and keeping up with new technology—day after day. The Japanese have a word, “karoshi” a legal term which means death by overwork because of increasing suicide and depression among Japanese workers. The four educators on our delegation were able to share with JTU the recent wave of teacher strikes in the US and dealing with the Supreme Court Janus ruling that puts a burden on a public sector union’s ability to retain membership.
UNITE HERE Local 11 Co-President Susan Minato with students at Okinawa University. APALA photo.
At Hosei University, our delegation led a two-part symposium on the US labor movement. In the first session, “Lessons from Educator Strikes”, Monica gave a slide presentation on the wave of recent teacher strikes in the US, emphasizing that the demands were not just for pay, but mainly for more resources for students. Some of the Japanese participants visited Los Angeles and participated in the UTLA victory celebration at the Labor Center. They remembered APALA member Arlene Inouye who was the union’s chief negotiator. Monica pointed out that the UTLA strike preparations began 5 years earlier when a rank and file slate of progressive teachers took over the union leadership. The preparations included a successful vote for a dues increase to build a strike fund and strengthening ties in the community. Lessons drawn from the wildcat strikes in the red states, the Oakland teachers strike and the Chicago teachers strike, which was going on while we were in Japan, were discussed.
Hosei University Labor Seminar. APALA photo.
The second part of the symposium began with a solemn tribute to Takasu who was instrumental in setting up a labor center there. A framed copy of the APALA resolution, which was passed at our last convention, recognizing Takasu’s contributions to promoting the solidarity of Japanese workers with APALA, was presented to his widow. This session was about sharing similarities and differences of the US and Japanese labor movements. Kent gave a brief history of the US labor movement and Monica talked about APALA’s contributions. The rest of the delegation gave presentations about conditions with public and private sector workers, after which, the symposium participants broke into small groups for dialogue that was reported back when the larger gathering reconvened.
We had a parting dinner with the Tokyo organizers of our trip and many toasts, singing and sharing happened. We all believed that Takasu would be pleased at the outcome of our trip and that the knowledge that was shared could only be beneficial to the union movement in both the US and Japan. This is what people-to-people contact does.
Last Night with Tokyo Comrades. APALA photo.
When we returned home, we mobilized APALA to help set up meetings with UN officials in New York and Congresspersons in Washington, DC for the six Okinawan legislators who are coming to present their case for the removal of the Henoko airbase. We will also promote the situation in Okinawa and of workers in Japan in as many venues as we can. To our shock, just days after our return, Shuri Castle, the 600-year-old iconic seat of the Ryukyu kingdom, which we visited, caught fire and burned to the ground for as-yet-to-be-determined cause. People returning to the Bay Area and Los Angeles are also witnessing raging wildfires and power outages due to climate change. We spoke of climate change wherever we went and people understand that organizing peoples’ power is an immediate and urgent task. In Okinawa, I spoke of the recent wave of global actions to protest climate change led by children and the necessity to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This linked directly to the Okinawan struggle to preserve the earth’s treasures. Like other indigenous people they are on the front line of the fight to save humanity.
Author’s bio: Alex Hing is a full-time sous chef in a luxury New York City hotel and a trustee of Local 6 of UNITE HERE, New York City Hotel Trades Council and a founding member of APALA. He was part of the rank-and-file movement to bring democracy to San Francisco’s Local 2 and on the Negotiating Committee of the 1980 four-week citywide hotel strike. Hing is a longtime activist in student, civil rights, peace, API and environmental movements. He is a tai chi master and studied Okinawan karate for 15 years.